U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District
Colorado is known for its beautiful mountains and scenery. The state probably has more miles of hiking trails than it does roads. If you live there and want to call yourself a seasoned hiker, there are a few treks you must make. One of those is climbing Long’s Peak. It’s a beautiful 14,000 foot peak that towers over the front range of the Rockies and greets travelers to Denver, as it is visible from the airport and downtown.
Climbing season for Long’s Peak runs from early June to early September — or really until the snow starts to fall at that elevation. Attempting to climb it in early May, which we planned to do, isn’t impossible; it’s just tougher. On this particular day, we got a break on the weather. We awoke to sunny skies and a temperature of 75 F. There was no rain in the forecast, so it appeared to be a perfect day for a hike.
When we arrived at the trailhead parking lot, we noticed something unique for a sunny day in May: there wasn’t a vehicle in sight. We stopped at the ranger station to ask about the conditions and were told there would be some snow on the side of the mountain, but overall we’d have favorable weather. Because we’d arrived a little later than expected, we decided we wouldn’t make an attempt at the peak. Instead, we’d aim for a lake on the path to the peak.
Feeling good about our odds, our group of five started out at a quick pace to make up for our delayed arrival time. The trail was gorgeous, and by mile three of our six-mile hike, we’d only burned an hour. After crossing a bridge over a roaring waterfall, we felt pretty confident the most difficult part of the hike was behind us.
About 500 feet past the bridge, we arrived at an area where trees don’t grow because of the conditions. The region is normally rocky and barren and tends to be a boring part of the hike. We noticed over this transition, however, that the snow level and wind speeds stared to increase. We stopped to add a few layers of clothing and put on our sunglasses, as it was still quite sunny. As we started the two-mile ascent to the lake, our warm, comfortable hike turned into one heck of a journey. Wind speeds picked up to a constant 40 mph with gusts pushing 100 mph. Only three of us brought hats and gloves, so the other two had to struggle on without much protection. The temperature was still about 65 F, but wind speeds that high make the conditions miserable.
To further complicate our hike, the snow depth quickly grew from just a few inches to 3 to 5 feet. We could be walking on firmly packed snow with one step and then be up to our waists in it with the next. This is referred to as “post holing,” as you make a post-like hole with your leg when you step.
By now our quick pace had slowed to a crawl as we attempted to forge through the snow. After an hour that probably gained us only 3,000 feet on the trail, we applied sunscreen because the sun’s rays were beating down on us hard. Luckily, we hit a plateau on the trail where we were shielded from the wind by some minor peaks ahead. We enjoyed this portion of the hike, which took us about a half mile from the lake. After a quick lunch, we set out across a snow field toward the lake, believing things would only get better from here.
As we rounded a corner, we stopped in our tracks when we heard a trickling noise coming from under the snow. We approached the area carefully when a 20-foot-wide section dropped suddenly, carrying hundreds of tons of snow with it. The avalanche only moved the snow about 50 feet or so, but it got our attention. We waited 10 minutes to see if any more snow would move. When it didn’t, we continued on our trail.
After traversing the avalanche area, we lost sunshine due to cloud cover. This was accompanied by a 25 F temperature drop, which started freezing our wet shoes. By the time we arrived at the lake, we were surrounded by dense clouds, snow, wind and near-freezing temperatures. While huddling for warmth, we decided a hike may not have been the best idea and started to head back down.
Thankfully, the wind was now behind us, but it still bites your ears at 50 mph regardless the direction it’s traveling. About four hours later, we arrived at the ranger station to a still-empty parking lot and a couple of grinning rangers. The weather at the trailhead had remained sunny and 75 F all day. They could tell by our faces that we’d encountered some rough conditions.Lessons learned
So what did we learn from this? How to avoid avalanches? Frostbite can be an issue on 75 F days? Pack better? While all are valuable lessons, they’re not the ones I want to highlight here. We suffered no cuts, twisted ankles, frostbite or major pain. Our only injuries didn’t pop up until the next day.
Despite wearing sunscreen, two of us appeared to suffer major sunburns. But only two of us. We debated how this was possible until a third party mentioned it might be wind burn. We then had an “ah-ha” moment. The two of us without hats and scarves were the only ones with wind burn. While it wasn’t much of an issue immediately after the hike, it hit us hard the following day. Both of us missed two days of work due to vomiting and exhaustion.
While the wind might not seem like a big deal when on a boat or while working out in a staging area, it can knock you down in more ways than one. Wind burn can be very painful and effect mission readiness, as evidenced by my buddy and me missing work. If you’re planning an adventure on a windy day, make sure you bring along some face protection. Try to stay out of super windy areas and take breaks on a regular basis. No standard exists for wind speed as it affects the human body, but it can do damage — even if it’s not immediately obvious.